I am hugely excited to be sharing an extract from Claudia Carroll’s newest release, All She Ever Wished For, with you today. I finished reading this book last night and it is absolutely brilliant!
‘Tess, my sausage, is that you?’ says Bernard, coming out of the kitchen with a sherry in one hand and a carving knife in the other.
‘Hello, you,’ I smile up at him as he bends down to give me a peck on the cheek.
‘Had a good day?’ he asks. ‘Everything sorted about that dratted jury summons?’
‘No, but don’t worry, come Monday morning it will be,’ I tell him confidently.
‘Good, good, good,’ he says absently, steering me past a big mound of books scattered all over the hall and on into the kitchen, where Beatrice is cremating what looks like it once started out in life as a rabbit.
Did I tell you about Bernard? Because he’s just lovely and the total opposite of just about every eejit I’d dated right up till he and I met. With one messer in particular very much to the forefront of my mind at the minute, but we’ll just skate over him like he never existed. Mainly because that particular chapter of my life is now buried deep in the back of my mind, padlocked and labelled ‘Do not, on any account, enter’.
Trust me, you don’t want to know.
Anyway, back to Bernard who’s a big man, portly and greying, but with just the loveliest soft brown eyes. Gentle, kind eyes. He’s also a full fifteen years older than me. He just turned forty-three last year and before he and I met, he quite literally hadn’t dated since he was in college. And even that relationship petered out after just a few months.
In fact, half of me suspects that’s the primary reason why Desmond and Beatrice were so welcoming to me right from day one. Up until Bernard and I started dating, I think they’d pretty much written off their only son as being neither gay nor straight, but in that grey hinterland in between. You know, a confirmed bachelor. One of those asexual people, who’d just rather have a nice cup of tea than dip a toe into the dating pond, purely to avoid all the emotional messiness involved.
His fellow college professors had long ago written him off as a young fogey in the William Hague mode and all the students he lectures had jokingly nicknamed him Billy Bunter because of his size, when, to everyone’s astonishment, he suddenly started dating anew. True, he and I were a bit of an odd couple at the beginning, and attracted much head shaking and commenting behind our backs along the lines of, ‘it’ll never last’.
Even now, from the outside we look like a bit of a mismatch. There’s Bernard, in his Clark Kent glasses wearing a crumpled linen suit, dandruff all over the collar and his tie on a bit skew-ways. Whereas here’s me still in my work gear of a Lycra top, leggings, trainers and the warmest fleece I own – insurance against the cold of this house, which even in high summer never seems to get as much as a single ray of sunlight and is permanently freezing.
Even the way we met was a bit unusual and I’m only praying that his best man, a fellow professor, doesn’t raise the subject in his wedding speech. Smash Fitness, you see, the gym where I work as an instructor, is on Nassau Street, slap bang in the middle of town and just across the road from City College, where Bernard lectures.
Anyway, cut to January two years ago and Bernard decided that he was developing a bit of a middle-aged spare tyre (and I hate to use the politically incorrect term ‘porker’, but in his case it was only the truth). In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, he decided that the only thing that would do him was to join a gym. And so gung-ho was he about his new fitness regime that he even booked a few full-on gut-burning sessions with a personal trainer.
Which is where I came in. But being brutally honest, this was no Hollywood ‘meet cute’. I never really had that whole love-at-first-sight thunderbolt when I gave Bernard his first fitness assessment at the gym. Instead I took one look at this greying, overweight older man and if anything felt pity for the poor sod as I put him through a one-to-one boot camp class.
Boot camp at Smash Fitness, by the way, involves your client doing a range of squats, lunges and press-ups, while the trainer yells all manner of motivational phrases in their face like, ‘faster, harder, higher! Gimme ten more! Come on, burn it off . . . work through the pain!’ We’re actively encouraged to err on the savage side with our clients, as my boss operates under the perverse notion that the tougher and more insulting you are to people, the more likely they are to keep coming back.
It’s not my way though. Personally, I prefer to encourage clients and cheerlead them towards their fitness goals, reminding them of how far they’ve come and how well they’re doing and that’s exactly the way I treated Bernard from the word go.
God love him though, he got so sweaty and red in the face when I first put him up on a treadmill, I really thought the guy might have a heart attack.
After a meagre ten minutes of what he claimed was medieval torture, he begged for mercy.
‘I’m so terribly sorry,’ he panted, gulping for air, ‘but I’m afraid I’ve got pain in my hamstring muscles that haven’t been used in decades.’
Typical Bernard. Unfailingly polite even when on the brink of an aneurysm. So just to make sure he got value from the full hour he’d paid for, I offered to take a look at his diet, to see what improvements could be made there. It’s fairly standard practice at Smash Fitness to take clients off wheat, gluten, dairy, alcohol and sugar for a full six weeks and if clients can only stick to it, they’ll soon start to look and feel unbelievably fantastic when they see visible results. Of course, Bernard nearly baulked at this when he realised that all his much-loved teatime sherries were now well and truly out, but I held firm.
Anyway, our session was finished and he was about to go his way and I mine, when he suddenly stopped me in my tracks.
‘Tess,’ he panted, still red-faced, sweaty and out of breath. ‘I’m absolutely determined to do this correctly, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound and all that.’
‘Good for you, you won’t regret it,’ I smiled, thinking how posh the English accent made him seem. The guy actually sounded a bit like Stephen Fry.
‘The thing is, your website says that the gym offers an at-home service, where a trainer will call to your house with smoothies and then whisk you off for a brisk morning jog, isn’t that correct?’
‘Absolutely,’ I said, delighted and relieved that I hadn’t scared him off fitness for life. ‘We can call to your home or to your workplace any time that suits you.’
‘Then how’s tomorrow morning for you?’ he asked, taking off his specs and looking at me a little bit shyly.
‘Well, normally we have a rota of personal trainers and I’m afraid I’m not scheduled for tomorrow morning.’
‘Yes, that’s all well and good, but the thing is some of the other trainers are quite brutal, almost to the point of being sadistic here, I find. So if it’s quite alright, I think I’d really prefer it if it was you. In fact, I don’t want it to be anyone else except you,’ he added, the big brown eyes almost pleading with me.
What can I say? My heart went out to the poor guy and I found myself saying yes.
So the following morning I trooped around to his house at 7 a.m., with a kale, carrot and Brussels sprout smoothie, which, trust me, may look like a glass of mowed grass, but doesn’t taste nearly as revolting as it sounds.